When I finally watched Joe Burrow’s Heisman speech Sunday and heard him talking about the people of Athens County in southeastern Ohio I damn near shed a tear when he started talking about how people there are struggling with hunger and hardscrabble lives that have taken a huge toll on the region. It was clearly not some grand scheme activism moments.
It was Joe Burrow literally shouting it out to the world that there are forgotten areas of this country that are not just struggling, they’re barely hanging on even in times when the stock market is at an all-time high and those on the coasts are enjoying the high life.
My dad’s dad was born and raised in Athens County, Nelsonville to be specific. It’s about 13 miles up old route 33 from the big city of Athens where Joe Burrow was raised as his father coached football at Ohio University. Grandpa grew up in Athens County during the Depression, left to find work in Dayton, ended up in World War II, got out and never left. We would go to Nelsonville for family reunions and for things like the Paul Bunyan Days where lumberjacks would compete in events such as log rolling and sawing competitions for ESPN Outdoors back when you could get that type of programming on a quiet Saturday morning.
Going to Athens County as a kid, we knew it wasn’t exactly the lap of luxury. Grandpa’s sisters got by just fine looking out for one another, but it was clear to me as a kid that a segment of the population was really struggling. That was 25-30 years ago. Times didn’t exactly get better.
According to the latest Census data, the poverty rate in Athens county was at 30.7%. The median household income was just over $37,000. And it wouldn’t matter if a local politician screamed it to the mountain tops of the Hocking Hills, nobody outside the county was listening until Joe Burrow went up on that stage and said this:
Joe Burrow's Heisman Trophy speech has inspired people across the country and more than $200,000 has been raised for the Athens County Food Pantry.
— Off the Bench (@OTB_ESPN) December 17, 2019
As I type this, over $433,000 has been raised for the Athens County food pantry (DONATE HERE). And right there in the middle of it all leading the way are LSU fans who are flooding the fundraiser with cash. Having been to Baton Rouge a couple of times for games and developing friendships with the Cajuns over the years, you won’t find many people better than them. You go to an LSU tailgate once and you’re friends for life.
There’s a reason I’ve always said LSU tailgating is better than any other in this country — they’ll feed you, provide drinks and then make sure you get seconds, thirds and fourths. And the whole time you’ll be trying to figure out what language they’re speaking, but you’ll keep eating the gator and jambalaya from the giant pot being stirred by a canoe paddle. And there’s a deep pride in all of it.
Stopping and looking at everything that has gone down this week reminds me that at the end of the day hopefully we’re all just out here looking out for one another. I’m convinced the Cajuns would enjoy Athens County. Go deer hunting with the locals. Maybe get some Rocky Boots. Drink the Athens bars out of beer. What about an LSU-Ohio fundraiser game one of these days? Combine forces — LSU fans…Athens bars…that could be extremely dangerous. This might sound crazy, but then again these are the Cajuns we’re talking about here.
Don’t put it past them to propose it and act on it one of these days to thank Joe Burrow for everything he did for the university.